Avoiding Childhood Obesity

Childhood obesity is on the rise. It’s an epidemic of grand proportions (no pun intended). In this society that values looks and idolizes anorexic models, we simultaneously abuse our children’s bodies and stand by as they grow larger and larger and become more and more unfit. Childhood obesity has got to stop but the cycle begins at home.

How do you know if your child is obese or at risk of becoming overweight? Knowing is half the battle. So many parents are in true denial, believing their children are simply “built big” or “sturdy” or retaining “baby fat”. It’s time for a reality check.

Your child’s body mass index (BMI) measures how much fat your child is carrying. BMI is considered an accurate way of measuring fitness. There are a few ways to measure BMI, some more accurate than others. A fitness trainer or nutritionist can measure your child’s BMI. But you can also get a pretty good estimate at home simply by using one of many online calculators that take into consideration your child’s height, weight, age and gender and compare it against a healthy range. My favorite calculator is at Keeping Kids Healthy

Input the requested data and instantly see if your child is at risk for obesity. If the answer is yes, there are some simple things you can do, as the parent, to proactively fight against obesity. Nutritionists tend to agree that an overweight child should not diet or lose weight. Instead some basic lifestyle changes should help the child maintain their current weight while they grow in height, eventually thinning out.

One of the best things you can do for your children is keeping them active. With recess being limited or eliminated from many classrooms, physical education being reduced to only once a week at some schools and no longer required at many middle and high schools, and more and more usage of computers and other inactive mediums, kids need our encouragement and support more than ever. Here are some guidelines:

  • Make sure your child is getting at least a half hour of concentrated aerobic exercise a day, regardless of the weather. Exercise should be fun and enjoyable. Biking, jumping on a trampoline, swimming, playing tag, jumping rope, rollerblading, riding a scooter or skateboard and dancing are all fantastic forms of fun exercise.
  • Make exercise a family affair. Take a daily walk as a family, if possible. Take bike rides with your kids. Dance together, play tag together, kick the soccer ball together. Your kids will be more likely to stay active if they have parents who stay active.
  • Find weekend activities that require physical activity such as boating, skiing, hiking, geocaching or letterboxing.
  • Take a pedometer challenge. You can pick up an expensive pedometer wherever sporting goods are sold. Buy one for everyone in the family and see how little each person really moves throughout the day. Challenge everyone to double their daily or weekly steps. Find a healthy motivation to get everyone moving such as a trip to the nature center or museum. Don’t use food as a reward.
  • Make sure your child is always signed up in at least one extracurricular activity that requires movement. A sport, ice skating, karate, swimming, dance and gymnastics are all great options. Give your child a list of choices and let them have a say in which option they will choose but always make sure an active extracurricular is part of your child’s life.

In addition to staying active and fit, parents can make small adjustments to their family’s diet and relationship with food that will benefit the children:

  • Make home a “water only” zone. It is ok to indulge in juice, occasional soda or other special drinks on special occasions, parties, etc but make home the one place in your child’s life where water is the beverage of choice. When your child does have juice, make it 100% juice instead of “juice drinks” such as Capri Sun or Gatorade that are primarily sugar and water and have very little nutritional value. They are empty calories.
  • Dessert is once a day at the most. Don’t pack a dessert in your child’s lunchbox AND give a dessert after dinner. Desserts, ideally, should be reserved for special occasions and not be part of your daily food intake but cutting down to once a day is a great start.
  • Chose slower fast-food. Pick Subway or Boston Market instead of McDonalds or Burger King. There are usually healthier options that aren’t fried or full of fat.
  • Trade white for dark. Eat brown rice instead of white rice. Eat wheat bread instead of white. Try whole wheat pasta instead of white pasta.
  • Put a cap on meals. Don’t let your children graze. Three meals and two snacks is plenty of food for almost any child. Too many children eat when they are bored and learn to rely on food for entertainment or to fill a void. Structuring meals helps children learn that eating is to sustain our hunger and also teaches them to recognize their body’s own hunger signals and eat until satisfied.
  • During meals, focus on quality, not quantity. If your child is hungry at the end of a meal, don’t offer seconds on less nutritious parts of a meal such as hotdogs, hamburgers, chips or bread. Instead, offer to let him have as much fruit or vegetables as they like.

By focusing on these small areas, your children won’t even take notice in the differences but parents can protect their children from childhood obesity. For more information about combating childhood obesity, check out my review of LEAN Kids by Dr. William Sears.